Treasury board lays out path forward as it takes lead on replacing Phoenix

September 4, 2018

KRIS MCDAVID Miramichi Leader

August 30, 2018

Federal employee union members protest the problem-riddled Phoenix pay system in front of Moncton's federal building in this file photo. Photo: Tom Bateman/Times and Transcript

Members of the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat are nearly ready to begin identifying replacement for the problem-plagued Phoenix pay system, and representatives of some of Canada’s largest public sector unions are saying that transition can’t come soon enough.

The treasury board announced last week that it has been hard at work trying to identify potential vendors capable of providing the federal government with a new system capable of “meeting the needs of employees” and functioning within the complex nature of the government’s human resources and pay structure.

Treasury board president Scott Brison said in a statement the group would be ramping up those efforts in the coming weeks as the government prepares to open up an official public procurement process aimed at securing the services of experts in the private sector to help the government identify “innovative alternatives” to Phoenix.

Brison said the new process will be everything that the initial sequence of events, which led to the failed rollout of the Oracle-developed, IBM-implemented Phoenix software, wasn’t.

“Public servants deserve to be paid accurately and on time for their work – anything less is unacceptable,” Brison said.

“As we explore and develop a modern, user-tested and reliable long-term solution to public service pay and HR for the digital era, our government is embracing a culture of accountability, innovation and agility … we won’t cut corners as was done with the Phoenix pay system.”

The work of the treasury board will be carried out by harnessing the $16 million in extra funding the Trudeau Liberals set aside in the 2018 budget to begin the process of transitioning away from Phoenix.

Tens of thousands of federal staff have been left with missing or inaccurate pay since the software first went live from the government’s centralized pay hub back in February 2016.

More than two years later, the system remains far from stable as Public Services and Procurement Canada’s most recent pay dashboard for July shows a backlog that still stands at at around 560,000 individual transactions waiting to be dealt with.

Officials with the department, however, have expressed optimism that it might finally be in a position to get a grasp on Phoenix after the successful pilot of a new approach that sees pay advisors broken down into smaller teams of pods.

The idea – which sees teams of employees assigned exclusively to the files of a single department – was hatched by staff in Miramichi last year and the results so far have been encouraging.

The format is expected to be rolled out across all of the departments serviced by the pay centre by mid-2019.

In addition, the Liberals have been spending heavily on bulking up the number of personnel handling pay requests, with the number of employees in Miramichi rising from around 600 since the launch of Phoenix to nearly 900 today.

Hundreds more have been hired to staff a series of satellite offices scattered across the country.

The most recent financial estimates for Phoenix shows that the saga has cost taxpayers roughly $1 billion in unplanned expenditures, with those totals expected to hit $2.2 billion by 2023.

Reports from the private firm Goss-Gilroy, along with auditor-general Michael Ferguson, and most recently the Senate Standing Committee on National Finance reports, all pointed to a series of missteps from both the Harper Conservatives and the Trudeau Liberals during the development and implementation of Phoenix.

Ferguson famously described the handling of the file in his report as an "incomprehensible failure of project management and oversight."

Members of the treasury board, meanwhile, say they’ll be working alongside industry experts, union officials, technology providers and public service employees as they work toward introducing a new and improved system.

“In due time”, the statement read, those stakeholders will be called upon to help test the new system and will also be involved in “all stages” of implementation and training.

But according to the results of a new survey released by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada [PIPSC], Canadians are hoping for a much faster turnaround to ditch Phoenix than the multi-year timeline that’s been laid out.

The study, commissioned by PIPSC and administered by Environics Research, found that 46 per cent of Canadians say that sixth months is a reasonable time to wait for a replacement system to be adopted.

An overwhelming majority of those polled, around 88 per cent, say that the process should be completed in two years or less.

PIPSC is one of the parties that will be collaborating with the treasury board on its efforts to stabilize the pay system.

“We’ve already waited well over two years for a solution,” said PIPSC President Debi Daviau in a statement. “Now that the government has committed to finding an alternative, it needs to speed up implementation of those alternatives. Our members can’t wait another two years.”

The survey reached out 1,000 Canadians over the phone in early July.

PIPSC is on-record as stating that it would like to see the government take a hard look at something known as the Corporate Administrative System [CAS] as a potential Phoenix replacement.

The CAS system is an HR to pay software already being used by the Canada Revenue Agency and the Canadian Border Services Agency, and officials with the union say they believe it could be updated quickly in order to be rolled out government-wide.

“We believe the CAS system can be adapted and brought online much more quickly than the government’s current (and vague) timelines for implementing an alternative system,” Daviau said.

“The government needs to speed up implementation of viable alternatives now. Our members can’t wait.”